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Behind the Scenes: Escaping cyclone-ravaged Myanmar

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  • CNN's Dan Rivers just got back from five days in Myanmar
  • Rivers: "The whole country is kind of a basket case"
  • Rivers: Government blocking aid "is criminal negligence on a massive scale"
  • Rivers: Staying longer would mean "I was getting in the way of the story"
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In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. Here CNN's Dan Rivers details his remarkable personal story to CNN Wire news editor Ashley Broughton after returning home Friday from five days in Myanmar, reporting on the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.

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CNN's Dan Rivers returned Friday from five days in Myanmar, reporting on the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.

(CNN) -- Hiding under a blanket in the back of a car at a police checkpoint. Hopping on boats instead of staying on a road. Constantly looking over your shoulder, knowing that at any moment you -- and those with you -- face the possibility of imprisonment, torture, even death.

It sounds like a spy movie. But CNN's Dan Rivers, who sneaked into storm-ravaged Myanmar without the knowledge of the nation's secretive ruling junta, says the reality is even more frightening than it appears on the silver screen.

Now out of Myanmar, Rivers said Friday that his experience raises a question: If the government is chasing down a journalist reporting on a natural disaster, what kinds of problems are aid workers facing?

"The whole country is kind of a basket case," Rivers said. "Combine that with a disaster on this scale and a government that won't let anyone in -- they're turning a bad situation into ... what really is criminal negligence on a massive scale." Photo Look at satellite pictures of the damage by the flooding »

He is concerned, he said, that many more may die as a result of the government's self-imposed isolation.

Earlier in the week, he said, his crew videotaped government workers dumping bodies of the dead into a river. A government not engaged in such activities, which amount to a kind of cover-up, should have nothing to hide, Rivers noted. "Why should they be trying to hide a natural disaster? It's not their fault. It just illustrates the mentality of the regime. It's so suspicious of the outside world." Video Watch how some aid is getting through »

Rivers arrived in Myanmar on Monday morning, a few days after Cyclone Nargis ripped through the Irrawaddy Delta region, putting more than 2,000 square miles of land under water and killing tens of thousands of people.

The Myanmar government has said 22,000 people were killed. The top U.S. envoy in the country has said the death toll may be as high as 100,000.

Rivers is no stranger to natural disasters and their aftermath. In 2004, he was in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, covering the devastation wrought by a tsunami. In October 2005, he was in Pakistan after a magnitude-7.5 earthquake killed 75,000 people in Pakistan and India.

"I've seen a lot of horrible things like that, unfortunately," he said of the situation in Myanmar. But "it was bad, and ... it's the kind of story you really feel emotionally. In that way, it's easy to write the story, because it just flows out. You feel passionate about it."

In Myanmar, however, "the logistics were horrendous," he said. Getting to the hardest-hit area involved an eight-hour drive on dirt roads.

In some ways, Banda Aceh before the tsunami resembled Myanmar, he said. The region, the closest land to the magnitude-9.0 underwater earthquake that spawned the tsunami, was also home to a nearly three-decade conflict between Indonesian troops and separatist rebels, and people tended to be suspicious of outsiders. Video Watch Dan Rivers' report from Myanmar »

However, after the disaster, "they just opened the whole place up, and it was just carte blanche," he said. "Anyone could go in. I guess I naively assumed it would be the same in this instance," thinking that police, with so many victims and so much damage to worry about, would not be concerned with, say, the kind of visa carried by a visitor.

Within days of his arrival, he realized he was wrong.

Rivers and his crew had been in Myanmar for only a day when a local contact warned them that the government was seeking him -- just after his name was broadcast. The contact said authorities were alerting all hotels to report which foreigners had stayed there.

Still, though, "I was pretty confident we were being careful enough," he said. He and his crew were continually changing locations, moving from hotel to hotel. But he knew that the potential for a problem was there.

That became more apparent during a visit in the country's southern portion Thursday, when members of his crew asked a local official whether a road was open. The official said yes and was going to give them a pass, but he said an immigration official wanted to talk to them, Rivers said. That official took the crew members' passports and were comparing them to a picture of Rivers -- apparently taken from a picture of a CNN screen. Learn more about Myanmar's recent history »

"They disappeared for, like, two hours," Rivers said. "I didn't know what had happened to them." He said he was worried his crew members might be interrogated or tortured, and considered turning himself in.

"I was wandering the street, not knowing what to do," he said. It was "baking hot" -- about 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), he said. He knew no one and was not fluent in the language. People were asking him who he was, where he came from. One person asked whether he was with the CIA.

The situation was "pretty uncomfortable," he said. "I must have looked pretty suspicious."

Luckily, he did not turn himself in -- and later found out that the officials did not know the crew members were from CNN or that they were accompanying him.

When the crew told him the officials had his photo, however, Rivers realized other authorities probably had his picture as well. The group decided to push farther south, he said. At one point, he hid under a blanket in the back of the car at a police checkpoint. It was at that checkpoint they were told that the people in the village they had just left wanted to see them again.

The crew turned around but decided to get off the road and followed a dirt road into the middle of the jungle, Rivers said. They parked the car, hopped on a boat and traveled down the river in two small boats. They reached a small village and were able to do some videotaping, he said. They also were checking on a rumor that there was a speedboat nearby.

While walking, however, they were stopped by a local official carrying a walkie-talkie, he said. The group was told to return to their van and that police would be waiting for them there.

The encounter, he said, was "gut-wrenching ... you think, 'Oh, my God, this is just going horribly wrong.' "

On the hour-long trek back through the jungle, Rivers said, he was genuinely fearful.

"For the first time, I was thinking, you know, this is it," he said. "We're in the middle of nowhere. No one knows where we are, exactly. They could just shoot us and throw us into the river and say we had an accident. ... You start to think about family and what you'd put them through if you disappear."

He said he expected a large phalanx of police officers at the van but was heartened to see only two officers there. The group was asked for their passports. In holding his out -- the last one to offer it -- Rivers said he held it in such a way that his thumb covered his surname. Not noticing, police took his middle name and radioed it in.

"They thought we weren't who they were looking for and basically let us go," he said, calling it a "fluke."

The group was escorted back into town and met with a more senior government official, who appeared convinced they were there as part of an aid group. Finally released, "we kind of hightailed it," driving all night into Yangon, he said.

"It was a genuinely very scary 12 hours," he said. "It really did seem like a week."

Still, he wasn't yet home free.

Sitting in a seat on a flight out of Yangon, having made it through security with no problems, Rivers thought he was finished with the Myanmar government.

But a flight attendant approached him and told him immigration authorities wanted to see him again, he said. He was escorted off the plane to officials who were waiting for him at the gate.

The authorities "basically searched everything I had," he said. They went through his bag and made him turn out his pockets, remove his shoes and socks.

He believes they were looking for pictures or videotapes, but he had none. They did find a computer flash drive, Rivers said, but it had nothing on it and it was returned to him. His passport was taken -- and his real name seen this time.

Eventually, the flight attendant returned. Although he did not understand the discourse, Rivers said he believed she was telling them the flight could not be held any longer and asking whether they were going to let him leave.

And so they did. "They hadn't found anything on me. They probably just wanted to get me out of the country anyway," he said. "The whole time, I just didn't really say anything."

Speaking from his home Friday and battling exhaustion after about 36 hours without sleep, Rivers said his experience as a wanted man was "really surreal."

"I guess the colorful bit, all this sneaking around in the swamps and getting on boats and stuff -- there were some quite comical moments, when I was literally under a blanket in the back of a car, sweating profusely at a checkpoint, trying to look like a piece of luggage in the boot, and you're thinking, 'How do I get into these situations?' "

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But he said the stubbornness of the Myanmar regime was "breathtaking" -- that, in the face of such a large-scale disaster, they would utilize time and resources looking for a reporter.

"The more resources are spent chasing me, the less they're going to be concentrating on actually helping people," he said. "There comes a point where I've done my job. I've told people what was going on ... staying in much longer would have meant I was getting in the way of the story."

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